What You're Missing: Julien Baker
The minutes counted up to twelve past the hour of nine as a sold out crowd patiently waited. Initially almost unnoticed, Julien Baker quietly emerged from the shadows of stage-left as concert-goers began to welcome her in their presence. Feeling under the weather, she quietly went to work and began to channel the emotions of the songs she was about to perform.
When I first purchased my ticket, I wasn't completely aware of what I would be taking in last night. To give a little background regarding my Julien Baker knowledge - I don't have much. I chose this show on a bit of a whim and on overall reputation that I read about from various publications and fans. Given the show was taking place at the Columbus Theatre (a favorite of mine), it seemed like something I should investigate. Julien is a 22-year old musician from Memphis that is very much on the rise with her work. Hailing from the South, she is also proudly gay and a devoted Christian, which is an interesting combination in today's climate. All the more, she is a truly genuine performer, as I would end up finding out.
It all began with some soft finger strumming which conjured up the sounds and feeling of Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah". Then, the built-up loop broke and Baker launched into "Appointments", the lead single from her latest effort, 2017's Turn Out the Lights. The audience fell silent as a cold reverberation quietly howled off of a bent guitar string, projecting itself throughout the 800-capacity classic theatre, as if there were no other souls in the room. The clicks of her guitar pedals were clearly audible as if you were on stage right next to her. This was a performance unlike any I had previously been fortunate enough to witness.
Accompanied by her piano, two guitars and a mug of hot tea, Baker powered through her set despite not feeling well. From time to time, you could hear her digging deep to reach the highest climaxes on different songs but ultimately falling a bit short. This was not a detriment in the least bit and personally made me all the more appreciative of her efforts, as she could have just as easily postponed or canceled the show. I imagine it's difficult enough to have to tap into the emotions of her songs, let alone to do it while feeling less than 100%.
Unfortunately for myself, photography opportunities were suddenly cut off about midway through the fifth song, so what I have from the night is limited. That said, I still feel fortunate to have what I have, to remember what I took in. I sat from the front row and watched the remainder of the performance, which reached some new heights when violinist Camille Faulkner joined her on stage. Sadly, I have no video of this, but her contributions can be heard in the form of the studio versions of Baker's songs. Being only a casual fan to this point, my knowledge of Baker's output is limited, but she certainly won me over completely last night. In particular, the performance of the track "Even" stood out to this photographer. See Baker and Faulkner perform this together in Madison, WI - just below.
On top of the weirdness of the random photography cut-off (which I'm sure had it's logical reasoning), it appeared that a fight between two men broke about toward the back of the room (Mind you, this is a completely seated theatre). Security had departed their post to the right of me to deal with the altercation and effectively toss the men from the show. For a show so quiet and tragic-feeling, it was a strange foray to occur in the setting. Still, even with that kind of disruption, Baker casually laughed and shook it off before continuing on.
The crowd repeatedly and consistently erupted at the conclusion of her songs, each one feeling more powerful than the last and leaving the hair on my arms standing up. From time to time, Baker would talk and laugh with the fans on hand, but predominantly saved her voice for singing. She played a mix of songs from her two LP's while casually throwing in a Mountain Goats snippet, as well as "Funeral Pyre", a 2017 standalone single. After playing through a number of tracks from her two LP's that tugged at everyone's heart strings, Baker closed out her set and quietly said thank you and goodbye. She exited the stage as quietly as she entered, forgoing the standard encore in favor of a more straightforward route. Her mark was left on us and that was that. While relatively small in stature, her voice and guitar had exploded like fireworks on stage in a spectacular fashion.
Baker's music deals with feelings of inadequacy/shortcomings, seeking acceptance/love, never really feeling good enough and dealing with emotional scars - amongst a myriad of other similar areas. It draws inspiration directly from the darker reaches of our souls, which is a more prevalent scenario for some than others. It is music that should be heard and truly deserves to be appreciated in a live setting. It taps into the deepest of emotions and projects itself upon it's listeners, making them truly feel and understand these darker aspects of life that so many deal with. Her music represents a light, signaling that we aren't necessarily so alone when we feel down and that sometimes, a sad song that we can identify with can make us feel better.